By Rachel Nowak
Note from the author: this article discusses the threat of violence, including conversations about school shootings. While I do not go into detail, statistics and several real life instances are mentioned.
College students and young adults today often hear the words “Well, when I was in school…” right before receiving “advice” that is no longer applicable to the modern college experience.. Sorry Boomers, but telling a recent college graduate who is $200,000 in debt that you managed to get a well-paying job and a house less than a year out of college is absolutely useless.
Students today have an extremely different experience than those from the 1970’s and 1980’s. This older generation of college students are the Baby Boomers, composed of anyone born between 1946 and 1964. The bulk of college students today belong to Generation Z (born after 1996), and their college experience bears a striking resemblance to the college experience of the millennials (born between 1977 and 1995). The difference between the Boomer’s college experience and later generations is the source of conflict between generations. This article is going to discuss three major differences between generations—the cost of college, the loss of a safe learning environment, and the new dynamic of social media.
First, and what I believe is the most important, is the extremely drastic rise of college expenses. In 1976, the average four-year public university including tuition, room and board, cost about $2,647 per year. Thirty years later, the average cost was $19,232. Even when accounting for inflation, the cost of a four-year school in 1976 would be about $11,900 per year. If a student with no financial aid goes to a public school for four years, that averages to about $60,000 in debt. The price of an average private four-year university is now about $50,000 a year. A four-year degree without financial aid will amount to about a quarter of a million dollars in debt.
That amount of money could buy a house, and a car, and still leave some left over to put into savings. Students know this, and they also know that the dramatic increase in the cost of their degree has not been matched by an equally dramatic increase in wages. In 1975, the average price of a home was about $48,000, which equates to $209,000 in today's money. Yet the average price of a home today is $239,000. The average price of a new car is about $31,000, versus the equivalent $16,500 that a new car would’ve cost in 1975 when adjusted for inflation. From 2000 to 2014 alone, the cost of living has gone up 31%.
Imagine having a mortgage hanging over your head, without actually having a house or an established position at a well paying job. That is the reality that most students today are facing. They are under an enormous amount of stress to succeed, because failing or dropping out of college does not mean they get to forgo paying their loans. In fact, most student loans start to require payments once students are out of college, whether they graduated or not.
The crushing effects of tuition hikes were exacerbated by the 2008 recession. During this time, a lot of people went back to school—and into debt—in order to attempt to supplement their resume. This flooded the job market with degrees at an unprecedented level in the U.S. As Baby Boomers and Generation X (born between 1965 and 1976) got jobs back, they inadvertently caused the value of a bachelor's degree to depreciate, simply by the quantity of them now within the population. The truth is as such: forcing more and more students to go for a master’s degree adds another two years of debt onto their already heavy load. A master’s at a private, four-year university can cost up to $500,000. It has led to more than 1.3 trillion dollars of outstanding student debt,3 and left a lot of students, while able to get jobs with a higher degree, with an amount of debt that is impossible to pay off.
Students already go to college with a lot of pressure. In college, everything feels amplified, from the smallest setback to a failed final. This type of pressure to succeed is not something new on college campuses, but it is now aggravated by the crippling debt that most students will have to deal with. Unlike the generation before, millennials did not know if their degree would get them a job after graduation. Generation Z is met with even more uncertainty, and as they begin entering the job market they will be challenged to stand out among a wide pool of competitors. Not only is Generation Z dealing with the knowledge that they will enter a downward trending economy saddled with debt, but they are also forced to learn in a space that cannot be considered safe.
Mass shootings have taken an upward surge that is unparalleled in U.S. history, and everything from schools to universities have been targeted. Students are no longer learning in an environment where they can feel sheltered and stay focused on learning. Instead, kids are quite literally risking their lives every day to get an education. Colleges, while not targeted in the majority of school shootings, are at increased risk because of their obvious lack of security. Campuses are very large and designed to be open for people coming and going. It would be nearly impossible for most colleges to screen who is coming and going, as well as what they are carrying. Doing so would remove the freedom that is associated with the college atmosphere. College students are now working, traveling to and from, and learning in a place that they know is a target for violence. What was a safe space to learn before is now no longer as such.
In 2018, there were 94 school shootings with 163 recorded deaths, shattering the previous record of 97 casualties from 1986. So far, in 2019, there have been 22 school shootings, and politicians are not in a position to enact any sort of law or regulation at the federal level.
Finally, in the last ten years, society has seen the massive rise of social media use, thanks in part to the invention and popularity of the smartphone. Generation Z and millennials have grown up in an age where your online social media persona can be a job—Instagram influencers and YouTubers are an example. Students are trapped in a large amount of perceived social pressure to post everything online. There’s a saying that if someone “didn’t post it, it didn’t happen,” and developing children and teenagers are extremely susceptible to the pressure of the invisible audience that is present on social media platforms.
Many students go to school expecting to be able to have a “true college experience,” which often includes what their parents told them they did in college. However, in today’s society, everyone has a phone with a camera, and once it’s posted online, it is there forever. It is there when a student graduates college, and their potential employers are seeing photos, videos, and statements made by them online. The online image a student creates during college seriously affects them outside of college.
Social media means that you are constantly scrutinized—not only does everything last online, but everyone can see it—both by prospective employers and peers. How well a student is doing can be known by everybody around them, therefore adding even more pressure to perform. It’s no longer just a few friends who might know if a student is failing a class, but everyone around them, including their professors who might have otherwise never noticed them.
While there are many other reasons college is different for current students than it was for their parents, and their parents, these three factors have major negative influences on the college experience. They drive the stress levels of students up higher than is even remotely healthy, and produce a bleak and hopeless image of the future for them. The combination of these three factors has created a college learning experience that is extremely different and more difficult to navigate than that of older generations.
“Generational Breakdown: Info About All of the Generations.” The Center for Generational Kinetics, https://genhq.com/faq-info-about-generations/.
“Digest of Education Statistics, 2007.” National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) Home Page, a Part of the U.S. Department of Education, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d07/tables/dt07_320.asp.
“Comparing the Cost of Living between 1975 and 2015: You Are Being Lied and Fooled When It Comes to Inflation Data and the Cost of Living.” My Budget 360, http://www.mybudget360.com/cost-of-living-compare-1975-2015-inflation-price-changes-history/.
Coughlan, Sean. “2018 'Worst Year for US School Shootings'.” BBC News, BBC, 12 Dec. 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-46507514.
Lou, Michelle, and Christina Walker. “There Have Been 22 School Shootings in the US so Far This Year.” CNN, Cable News Network, 26 July 2019, https://www.cnn.com/2019/05/08/us/school-shootings-us-2019-trnd/index.html.